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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 September, 2004, 21:18 GMT 22:18 UK
Nationalists unhappy with Murphy statement
By Martina Purdy
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent

Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy took ill before he could deliver his keynote address to the Labour Party conference - but the statement he issued in its place may yet leave some of the parties reeling.

Paul Murphy
Details of Mr Murphy's speech were released after he was taken ill
Mr Murphy signalled that the government intended to press ahead with changes to the way a future assembly is run, as the Good Friday Agreement was not beyond "amendment or improvement".

He also said the prize of removing arms and paramilitarism from politics in Northern Ireland was "within the government's grasp".

That last comment alone was enough to sicken republicans, who fear it indicates a mindset that ignores loyalist weapons and the existence of the UVF, LVF and UDA.

But aside from that, Mr Murphy's comments indicate the government may be prepared to legislate over the heads of the parties.


Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness pointed out the government had not shared the details of these proposals with his party - and warned that republicans would not tolerate changes that diminish the Good Friday Agreement.

The SDLP believes the government is prepared to do the DUP's bidding and claims this is because Sinn Fein acquiesced in certain proposals at the Leeds Castle talks - an accusation firmly rejected by Sinn Fein.

Speaking in Brighton, SDLP leader Mark Durkan said he was not surprised the government had made this statement - nor was he happy.

Mr Durkan said: "The problem is not what the secretary of state says, the problem is what it means."

The DUP's initial reaction to the announcement was that it would look at the detail.

Mark Durkan
Mark Durkan said he was not happy with Mr Murphy's statement
The two governments regard the next two weeks as critical to achieving a resolution - one on which Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern could put a seal of approval.

The difficulty for the government is one party's improvement may be another party's deterioration.

The DUP says it wants fundamental changes to the Agreement, and the SDLP believes them.

Mr Durkan said the DUP "don't want fig leafs, they want the whole Agreement tree".

Mr Blair's dilemma is that he has in his hands an offer from republicans but in reaching out to the DUP he may drop the prize from his grasp.

Republicans certainly appear to be uneasy about the secretary of state's remarks.

Martin McGuinness
Mr McGuinness said Agreement changes would not be tolerated
On Tuesday, British officials were in Dublin working on proposals the two governments may table to the parties in the coming days.

Bertie Ahern will get a chance on Thursday to sound out the DUP.

Mr Paisley and his deputy Peter Robinson are making their first official trip to Dublin to meet the Taoiseach, having met him in January at the Irish Embassy in London.

Like Mr Blair, Mr Ahern will be keen to win over the DUP without losing nationalists. He may at least be grateful that Mr Paisley is making the trip.

Twenty years ago, Ian Paisley was crying "sell-out" at any unionist going to Dublin for talks with the Irish Government, while Martin McGuinness was supporting the IRA bomb attack on the Conservative Party conference.

What a difference 20 years makes. While Mr McGuinness attended the Labour Party conference in Brighton, it was announced that DUP leader would hold his first-ever meeting in Dublin with the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

The British and Irish Governments are taking encouragement from such changes.

The not-an-inch party has been inching towards an historic accommodation with nationalism/republicanism.

But there is still much scepticism that the two sides can bridge the remaining gaps to a timetable that would suit the ever-impatient premiers.

At the weekend, Mr Blair put the chances of a resolution at "50-50", a chance of success which he said was "reasonable".

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One well-placed source claimed the prime minister was not entirely convinced the DUP were willing to share power on an equal basis, having read their proposals for devolution at Leeds Castle in Kent.

There is a view that momentum could be lost if the negotiations drag out - that the slow burn of progress at Leeds Castle may cool.

Mr Robinson appeared deflated after last week's talks and a lengthy meeting with Mr Durkan.

He gave the impression of a politician in shock at the refusal of his opponents to compromise.

One talks insider claimed the DUP were surprised when they found the SDLP would not "roll over" on the Agreement.

He told the BBC: "They thought their mandate as the largest party would mean the Agreement would change - instead they found the other parties who were pro-Agreement were not going to give in."

Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley

Nationalists were intrigued to hear DUP MP Gregory Campbell talk about a 2005 deal on BBC's Hearts and Minds last week - was it a freudian slip, Mitchel McLaughlin of Sinn Fein wondered?

If it was, then the DUP will play a long game until after the General Election.

A more benign reading of the remark is that Mr Campbell was simply referring to the fact that any deal would take time to implement, with power-sharing not expected before the New Year.

The picture should become clearer by mid-October.




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